Winterson wisdom

My favourite quotes from Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

 

On happiness

…But earlier meanings build in the hap, in Middle English, that is ‘happ’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’ – the chance of fortune, good or bad, that falls to you. Hap is your lot in life, the hand you are given to play. How you meet your ‘hap’ will determine whether or not you can be ‘happy.

What the Americans, in their constitution, call ‘the right to the pursuit of happiness’ (please note, not the ‘right to happiness’), is the right to swim upstream, salmon-wise.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, depending on circumstances, and a bit bovine…Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred. What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life.


On life

There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.

In fact, there are more than two chances – many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

Life is layers, fluid, unfixed, fragments. I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me. 

But then I understood something. I understood twice born was not just about being alive, but about choosing life. Choosing to be alive and consciously committing to life, in all its exuberant chaos – and its pain. 

She smiles. She doesn’t judge herself and she doesn’t judge others. Life is as it is.

If I can’t stay where I am, and I can’t, then I will put all that I can into the going.

Gertrude drives on. She says, “Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.”


On literature

A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.

The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need.


On love

…there are so many kids who never get looked after, and so they can’t grow up. They can get older, but they can’t grow up. That takes love. If you are lucky the love will come later. If you are lucky you won’t hit love in the face.

The love-work that I have to do now is to believe that life will be all right for me. I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to fight for everything. I don’t have to fight everything. I don’t have to run away. I can stay because this is love that is offered, a sane steady stable love.


On capitalism

I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results. That public services will no longer be important. That an alternative life to getting and spending will become very difficult as cheap housing disappears. That when communities are destroyed only misery and intolerance are left.

Time is only truly locked when we live in a mechanised world. Then we turn into clock-watchers and time-servers. Like the rest of life, time becomes uniform and standardised.


On feelings

Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work hard at feeling too little. Feeling is frightening.

When we say ‘I think’ we don’t leave our emotions outside the door. To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.

I panic when my feelings are not clear. It is like staring into a muddy pond, and rather than wait until an ecosystem develops to clear the water, I prefer to drain the pond.


On madness

Probably we are less tolerant of madness now than at any period in history. There is no place for it. Crucially, there is no time for it. Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives you mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.

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Why be happy when you could be normal?

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This is a very touching, personal mediation on love and loss, and a raw, unflinching look at life and the mess of human emotions. Written as a sort of sequel to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, in a more autobiographical style and focusing heavily on her relationship with her adopted mother and her desire for maternal love, this is definitely more rough, honest, vulnerable, messy, and more real than most of the books I have read. Reading something so personal, it feels like I was going through a journey with the author herself, and it feels as cathartic to read as it must have felt to write.

The writing style seems a bit modernist, as though the writer is writing purely from her unrelenting thoughts or sometimes even stream of consciousness – but that’s the beauty of it, because that’s how our inner mind works in real life. Breaking the traditional conventions of linear time, plot and narrative flow is a very effective technique in this case, and one that the author admits is not entirely pre-mediated. She was writing this in real time, and at one point where the language gets more fumbled and sometimes chaotic, it was because she wanted to show how the process of inner turmoil, a mental breakdown and a downward emotional spiral really feels like, and it is powerful.

To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy Oranges, because the language and writing style there somehow didn’t captivate me…but I’m so glad I read Why be happy when you could be normal?, for this was completely unrestrained and as close to being human as it gets. I picked up this book not knowing what it’s really about actually, mostly intrigued by the title. But when you get to the point where the significance of the title is revealed, it really hurts, just like at many points in the novel.

Perhaps as someone who understands the experience of a dysfunctional family, I really related to her need and search for the meaning of love and identity, especially the part where she had difficulty being loved and trusting that she could be loved. I think our families really play a pivotal part in our early life and sometimes their influence sets the tone for our entire life. Jeanette talks about her experience of being an adopted child, but what I got out of it was really a close look at the nature and workings of family and human relationships. It is also a touching testament to the depth of human resilience in the face of immense adversity, helplessness and hopelessness.

Ok after this review I’m giving it 5 stars instead of 4, because I really wanted to give a 4.5. If you relate to what I wrote in this review, you should probably read the book.

The Course of Love

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The novel’s title, I believe, is a wordplay on ‘course’ that means both instruction and a journey, like that of a meandering river. Indeed, Love is a learning journey.

This book in three descriptive phrases (because it’s so nuanced single words are not enough): intricately wise, humorously cryptic, and painfully honest.

There are so many “quotable quotes” sprinkled generously throughout the book which reverberates clearly with the wisdom of years – this is a first novel from the bestselling author of The Art of Travel, Essays in Love and many more, in nearly two decades. Clearly, age and presumably a journey with marriage of his own makes this book refreshingly different from his earlier titles, while still retaining his poetic style.

But despite a whole list of quotes I’ve typed out and saved in my phone, no fragment of the book can truly encompass what The Course of Love means. It is not a lesson the author preaches, but rather a journey that we go through together with the couple in the story. Whether it is fictional or not ceases to matter, because they are so full of failings and imperfections that finally, we have a love story that is so startlingly real that it filled my heart with both pain and relief (simultaneously).

As such, it is imperative to go through this book like a journey, and just like the journey of love itself, it requires patience, contemplation, self-reflection and the willingness to consider a perspective vastly different from what you’ve known.

Love in this book is not romanticised – in fact it attempts to deconstruct the vision and expectations of love that Romanticism has built in human society.

With great insight and very incisive and powerful writing, Alain de Botton unfolds and lays bare all the vulnerabilities of being human and the unpredictable nature of life that we strive and fail to hold within our grasp.

In the end, he teaches us, slowly and patiently, to appreciate and cherish the imperfections, frustrations, incessant anxiety, and the grand heroism in accomplishing the small things that aren’t really small after all. He shows us the beauty of what many of us fear or aspire to surpass: mediocrity. 

I would like to leave here the closing paragraph of the novel (no spoilers, since there’s nothing to spoil anyway as it’s not really a destination but a continual journey):

Very little can be made perfect, he knows that now. He has a sense of the bravery it takes to live even an utterly mediocre life like his own. To keep all of this going, to ensure his continuing status as an almost sane person, his capacity to provide for his family financially, the survival of his marriage and the flourishing of his children – these projects offer no fewer opportunities for heroism than an epic tale.

He is unlikely ever to be called upon to serve his nation or fight an enemy, but courage is required nevertheless within his circumscribed domains.

The courage not to be vanquished by anxiety, not to hurt others out of frustration, not to grow too furious with the world for the perceived injuries it heedlessly inflicts, not to go crazy and somehow to manage to persevere in a more or less adequate way through the difficulties of married life – this is true courage, this is a heroism in a class all of its own.

And for a brief moment on the slopes of a Scottish mountain in the late-afternoon sun, and every now and then thereafter – Rabih Khan feels that he might, with Kirsten by his side, be strong enough for whatever life demands of him.

and these are some of my favourite things

Here are some of the best reads among all books i’ve read, for different reasons:

The Lover’s Dictionary for its creative concept and bittersweet honesty about love, which is actually not cliched for once

Nocturnes for the imagery and melancholic atmosphere woven magically by words about the night

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold for the witty prose by a journalist, and his candid observations and interesting encounters with people from all walks of life

The Great Gatsby for Fitzgerald’s powerful writing, building up to that famous last line

A House in the Sky for its social importance, truths about human morality and the workings of fundamentalism that is so relevant and vital to understand, from a first person perspective of a survivor

The Kite Runner for similar reasons, and also class division in a society and how it impacts individuals from young. And also its sharp examination of how good and evil, kindness and cruelty are often filled with ambivalence

Sightseeing for a local understanding of Thai society, and the social and cultural issues entrenched in not just Thailand, but also other Asian cultures, as well as more deep-rooted human dilemmas we can all relate to

Never Let Me Go for its startling yet humanising portrayal of a very controversial ethical topic even till today, and even more shocking if you read the book without having watched the movie (no spoilers here)

The Little Prince because…I don’t even want to say anything because this is THE book everyone should read, especially adults, although it seems like a children’s picture book. No book has ever hit me so hard with such abstract simplicity about human nature and the workings of society. And the fact that the writer wrote it at his most jaded…having been through war as a fighter pilot. And also the fact that he wrote it as a children’s book with deceptive simplicity……….

1Q84 because of its crazy mind-bending plot across multiple genres that somehow all weaves together in the end, and also because it doesn’t have a depressing ending for once in a Murakami novel (lol)

Lastly Nineteen Eighty-four because of how insanely accurate and relevant it still is today, and because it examines the nature, purpose and power of language and writing itself, as a tool for constructing knowledge and living a meaningful life. As well as one million other social and political issues – definitely not just another dystopian novel.

Also including the clever cover design update from Penguin Books – a perfect example of how the medium can be the message.

Happy reading everyone!

Books

Currently Reading: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

To read:

  • The Bookseller of Kabul, Åsne Seierstad
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • Censoring an Iranian love story, Shahriar Mandanipour
  • The Missing Rose, Serdar Ozkan
  • Kokoro, Natsume Sōseki
  • 69, Ryu Murakami
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl
  • The Penguin Book of the British Short Story (Bishan Library)
  • The Symposium, Plato
  • On Photography, Susan Sontag
  • Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Michael Bierut
  • Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses, Thomas Elsaesser, Malte Hagener
  • Branding in Five and a Half Steps, Michael Johnson